..: Seat of My Pants :..

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Scooter heights

Bhutan - Tango Monastery (1989)

Ron and I were still just getting used to the scooter. Actually, and to be fair, it was mostly me just getting used to clutching. We had rented an Indian ‘Bajaj’ scooter from an expat living below us in our rented house in Taba, Bhutan. The Bajaj was a direct rip-off in design to its Italian counterpart the Vespa, but with none of the workmanship, quality, or smoothness. The clutch needed letting go with a precision in tandem with the gas that rivaled neural surgery. Slightly too slow on the release, and the motor bogged and quit. Slightly too quick, and it leapt up. I do actually mean ‘up’, as I accidentally twice bent the rear license plate in half to prove it. Our destination that day was Tango monastery ‘somewhere at the end of the valley and up the mountainside.’ With this as our only guide we felt confident we could reach it in a day. The whole of Bhutan is only 100 by 200 miles as the crow flies, right? Only later did we learn that the 200 mile length was actually 600 miles to drive, due to all the twists the road was obliged to take as a full-fledged member of the Himalaya.

At any rate, after we flattened the rear plate as much as it would allow, we tottered off down the road out of Taba toward the next village of Denshensholing. It was a bright day in the early morning and we had packed a nice lunch. Although we rarely got over 20 KPH, helmets seemed always a good idea given the mountain roads. I often drove into town for Indian beer (Black Label) in litre bottles, clink-clanking my way home with them in the scooter’s basket in front of my knees. And it was on these trips that I learned to just be content with my speed (or lack thereof), and to definitely keep to far right of the road. Huge trucks owned it and cared little for anything else except other huge trucks. I never drove at night. God help me should I ever have done so. The little blue scooter did have a horn, but was so ridiculously squeaky that we immediately christened it The Druk Duck. ‘Druk’ is a Bhutanese term for a dragon and is more or less the national symbol – it’s on the Bhutanese flag, for example.

The road wound around pitched rice paddies, stepped above each other on the gentle slope, before leading us into more forested patches that swelled up toward Denshensholing. We had been in the village previously, having visited a silver smith at his shop. It was, in fact, a village of silversmiths, known for their craft and suppliers to the Royal Household. But we passed on through that morning and on into the pine forest as the end of the Thimphu valley closed in and the slopes on either side of us grew steeper. We came to the end of the road; or rather, it came to an end on us and dithered off into earth to become a path. We left the scooter there and set off on foot.

Footpaths in Bhutan are much like footpaths anywhere else and we switch-backed and see-sawed our way up the path, pausing more and more frequently to heave air in and out of our lungs. Taba, where we’d started, was already at 9,000 ft above sea level, and we’d probably had added another 1000 to that so far. Air starts to thin at 11 or 12,000 feet and so we were feeling more faint that we would have normally at home on such a hike. We met monks making their way down the mountain from time to time - sometimes with a donkey, sometimes without. Well up the mountainside we came across a Chorten, and taking this as a sign we were nearing, slumped on the ground nearby to rest. Chortens are interesting monuments. They need to contain some relic or other from Buddhist scripture, and are usually roofed, although solid structures without any real interior. Painting them white with a wide red/ochre band about 2/3 of the way up is standard. Sometimes the red band is made up instead of bas-relief slate tiles depicting the Buddha in various of his positions from scripture. This was one such Chorten and had lovely slate pieces inset at perpendicular angle to the bas-relief plates and ran above and below them all around the structure. There is a very important protocol to Chortens as well – well maybe a few I guess, but I did know one. The traveler must always pass around Chortens on the left side, and circle them counter-clockwise if circumambulating. This is a common Buddhist mandate, and applies to the spinning of prayer wheels, creation of mandalas and so on. It is said that this motion reflects the turning of the earth as viewed from above the North Pole. We got up after a brief rest and passed the Chorten on its left and hiked on up further.

In short order we wound around on the path to the left, and instead of switching back to the right, the path continued on levelly along the slope and through the pines. The path opened up and we found ourselves in bright sunshine with the spread of the monastery before us. It’s buildings started above us and seemed to slip down the mountain to some animal shelters down-mountain. But the main entrance was in front of us and we approached it carefully as uninvited guests. On my right before the main gate, was a large flat structure on the grass tilted up slightly to catch the sun equally across its surface. It consisted of a length of plastic pipe would back and forth, back and forth, exiting out one side and snaking over toward the monastery. I saw an input pipe on the other side and realized I was looking at a simple water heater. The sun warmed the water passing through the pipe as it wound through the apparatus. Nifty!

There was man standing outside and near the entrance in monk’s robes. He seemed to be waiting. Surely, not us? I never found out. We gesticulated that wished to enter the monastery, and he nodded quickly. I guessed him to be 40 to 50 years old. He said a word or two in Bhutanese, to which we could only smile, and looked out over the valley as it spread out below us. It was a truly magnificent sight, and we could see easily how far we had come – it was a helluva way! I held up my hand toward him asking with one word: Lama? He nodded and turned smoothly toward the entrance taking us with him.

We walked across and open courtyard perhaps a hundred metres on a side. The main Dzong, or temple building, was situated on a raised platform of large flat stones with steps up to it before us. To my left were some smaller outbuildings lower down, giving any vantage point from the raised platform and temple a truly spectacular view of the Thimphu valley. The capital itself, Thimphu, was far away near the other end of the valley and not visible from this range. However, we could see a layer of haze snaking along the contours of the valley part of the way up. This was the smoke of morning kitchen fires from villages along the valley floor. Behind the monastery were some more buildings creeping up the slope and crowding the back of the temple. These turned out to be the monastery’s dormitories.

The Lama led us across the raised platform toward the cool and dim interior of the temple proper. We removed our boots at the wooden threshold and I felt the smooth, cool, wood slid under my socks like I was stepping onto a cloud. How many bare feet had trod that step before me to wear it so? I raised my head to watch for the doorway’s lintel, trying to avoid one of those bone-crunching thuds I so often experienced in a country built for smaller-statured people. Successful, I stood up straight, as did Ron beside me. The ceiling was ten or twelve feet above the floor and was a geometric containment of squared, wooden panels sunk into one another across its breadth. It gave the structure a curious undulating effect that caught available light in pockets and made the contents glow marvelously. The Lama gestured gently for us to follow and we exited the main room via a small doorway (watch your head!), stepping over a raised threshold like that in a submarine. We found ourselves in a smallish room set with pillows on the ground crowding a low table. There were two or three windows across and behind where the Lama was seating himself and two more on our left at the south end. These last two looked out over that same spectacular view of the valley. Several more monks joined us and Ron and I settled ourselves as well as our gangly frames would allow. Tea was brought in and a platter heaped with a yellowish rice. Was that just waiting around somewhere? How did it get here so fast? I wondered if we had been noticed before we had left the Druk Duck in its lonely spot at the head of the trail!

The Lama sat quietly watching us, but not watching us. He gazed around the room, out the window, anywhere but directly at us. We spoke and thanked him kindly for his quick generosity. His eyes flickered over us and he smiled briefly. The monks who brought the food settled as well and the Lama reached out and scooped a handful of rice into his hand, motioning us to do likewise. The rice was sticky, but was not ‘sticky rice’ per se. It was granular and somewhat under-cooked, but its stickiness came from honey mixed into it. Holy cow was that good! The yellow colour in it I’d seen at first was from strands of saffron blended into it. Real saffron, locally grown I’m sure, and considered a holy spice due to its close proximity in colour to the yellow robes worn by senior monkhood. In fact, most monks wore variations on burgundy, and full yellow robes were reserved for the most senior monk in the Kingdom – the Je Khinpo. Further, it was illegal for the laity to even wear yellow at all in any of their clothing. Some senior monks, such as the Lama before us wore a sort of yellow under-jacket, with the familiar red robes flowing around his shoulders and into his lap.

I reached for my tea, but stopped abruptly as it neared my mouth. I smelled something quite odd about it and then noticed a whitish lump floating in it. Ulp. I looked at Ron who looked down at his own cup to see the same thing. What the…? On inspection, the lump turned out to be butter (specifically, rancid butter as I learned later and that this was the right and proper way to serve it). I sipped the tea gingerly and a curious taste came forth, the mild and smoky taste of the slightly ‘gone’ butter, but also a hint of salt. There was no sugar in it. On reflection, it was an ambrosia of which I have never since had the like. More rice with honey followed more sips of tea. It was wonderful. We all of us in the room sat quietly, tending to ourselves and our taste buds. I suspected then that no one beside ourselves spoke English. I could certainly hazard that no one besides them in the room spoke Bhutanese. Ahem. I spoke the only words I knew: Kuze Szambo (Koo-zeh Zambo), a greeting. There were broad smiles and all continued to eat.

One of the monks brushed some crumbs from his robes and made to rise. The lama remained seated and the others began to rise as well. We were motioned to join them and we left the room and the Lama and took a winding staircase just outside the room up a flight to a very cramped room overlooking the valley. This was a monk’s dormitory room, and at least five of us crowded in there. The monk whose room it was, was visibly excited and showed us a variety of things in his room, popping out the odd word in English to our surprise. A letter from a German tourist (I translated as best I could from my high school German, but couldn’t really do the letter any justice), a cassette tape of what looked like Indian pop music, some pens and pencils. They were very interested in our scooter helmets. We’d been lugging these around not knowing where to leave them and they were always annoying shapes to bang into door frames and so on. They had no redeeming value in any safety sense, being just hard plastic shells really. But the monks were quite interested and wanted to try them on. Hey why not.

I ended up corresponding with the monk whose room it was a couple of times on return to Canada. The most miraculous thing was he sent me a letter with a Tsenden leaf enclosed. The Tsenden is the most holy tree in Bhutan, specifically grown next to monasteries and lamaseries. The leaf he sent was tucked inside his letter, itself inside a flimsy, 2 micron-thick blue airmail envelope. The envelope arrived at my door in a Ziploc bag actually, with a sticker declaring ‘Repaired by Canada Post.’ Inside, the envelope was in shreds, looking like it had gotten wet, sat on, run over, and stepped on. But the delicate leaf, this holy leaf, was completely intact. I was astounded. I still have it somewhere under glass. He had signed the letter with the familiar Buddhist swastika that we know from Nazi use. It is a very old symbol, from Buddhist and Hindu mythologies, preferring luck and life and good fortune on those its ascribed to, rather than the dark and wholly evil purpose it was set to in Germany in the early 1930s. I shall have to dig out that letter and snap a shot of it to set into this post…


  • Wonderful post. Like the details about the vespa like vehicle-like the neurosurgeon comment.
    I felt totally in the scene you presented to the reader. Details like ducking for the doorframes, the feel of the wood underfoot. Lovely. This is a good idea, these posts, a very good idea. Please to do more, hon.

    By Blogger gardengirl63, at 9:40 PM  

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